Sunday, January 16, 2011

Monday is MLK Day. How will you celebrate the impressive political life of this American who helped pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964?

On Martin Luther King Day, remembering the first draft of 'I Have a Dream'

By Clarence B. Jones
Sunday, January 16, 2011;


It was the late spring of 1963, and my friend Martin was exhausted. The campaign to integrate the public facilities in Birmingham had been successful but also tremendously taxing. In its aftermath, he wanted nothing more than to take Coretta and the children away for a vacation and forget - forget the looming book deadline, the office politics of his ever-growing Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the constant need to raise funds.

But a date for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom had been nailed down - Aug. 28 - and Martin realized he couldn't plan such a massive undertaking with the usual endless interruptions. No, if this march were going to come together in time, he would have to escape all the distractions. (This was a man, after all, whose best writing was done inside a jail cell.) He needed to get away to a place where very few people could reach him.

That would be my house in Riverdale, N.Y.

For the previous three years, I had been an adviser to Martin Luther King Jr., his personal lawyer and one of his speechwriters. Stanley Levison, another adviser who had done even more work with Martin on his speeches than I had, was also a New Yorker. Because of some dark ops on the part of the FBI, Martin could not deal directly with Stanley, yet he very much valued his advice, so it made sense for Martin to stay at my home and have me act as a go-between as we planned the March on Washington - and the speech Martin would deliver.

The logistical preparations for the march were so burdensome that the speech was not a priority for us. Early in the summer, Martin asked some trusted colleagues at the SCLC for their thoughts on his address, and during his weeks in New York, we had discussions about it. But it wasn't until mid-August that Martin had Stanley and I work up a draft. And though I had that material with me when I arrived at the Willard Hotel in Washington for a meeting on the evening of Tuesday, Aug. 27, Martin still didn't know what he was going to say.

We met in the lobby rather than in a suite, under the assumption that the lobby would be harder to wiretap. Tables, chairs and plants acted as a cordon of privacy. It was with this odd start, hiding in plain sight, that 12 hours before the March on Washington began, Martin gathered with a small group of advisers to hammer out the themes of his speech.

He had reacted well to the material Stanley and I had prepared, but he also knew that many of the march's supporters and organizers - labor unions, religious groups, community organizations and academic leaders - needed to be heard as well. So that evening he had a cross-section of advisers present to fill any blind spots. Cleveland Robinson, Walter Fauntroy, Bernard Lee, Ralph Abernathy, Lawrence Reddick and I joined him, along with Wyatt Walker and Bayard Rustin, who were in and out of our deliberations.

As we ate sandwiches, our suggestions tumbled out. Everyone, it seemed, had a different take. Cleve, Lawrence and I saw the speech as an opportunity to stake an ideological and political marker in the debate over civil rights and segregation. Others were more inclined for Martin to deliver a sort of church sermon, steeped in parables and Bible quotes. Some, however, worried that biblical language would obfuscate the real message - reform of the legal system. And still others wanted Martin to direct his remarks to the students, black and white, who would be marching that day.

Martin got frustrated trying to keep everything straight, so he asked me to take notes. I quickly realized that putting together these various concepts into a single address would be difficult. Martin would have to take one approach - his own - with the other ideas somehow supporting his larger vision. I kept on taking notes, wondering how someone would turn all this into a cohesive speech. As it turned out, that would be my task.

Eventually, Martin looked to me and said, "Clarence, why don't you excuse yourself and go upstairs. You can summarize the points made here and return with an outline."

I sat in my room, flipping through the scrawled pages of the yellow legal pad, struggling to boil down everyone's perspectives. The idea of urging the crowd to take specific actions, as opposed to a general kind of complaining, seemed one area of agreement. (The march's organizing manual even had a headline that spelled it out: "What We Demand.")

A conversation that I'd had during the Birmingham campaign with then-New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller inspired an opening analogy: African Americans marching to Washington to redeem a promissory note or a check for justice. From there, a proposed draft took shape.

And the words "I have a dream" were nowhere in it.

About an hour later, I took my writing back to the lobby and began presenting it to the group. Immediately the others interrupted:

"What about - "

"Why didn't you - "

"I thought we agreed - "

They were all over me. And given the fact that several were Baptist preachers, there was no small amount of grandstanding. I began defending myself, but Martin intervened. "Okay, brothers," he said, "thank you so much everybody for your suggestions and input. . . . I am now going upstairs to my room to counsel with my Lord."

He walked quietly toward the elevators, leaving the rest of us to look at each other. "Tomorrow, then," someone said, and we dispersed.

***

Tomorrow, as history would record, turned out to be an enormous success. The weather and the massive crowd were in sync - both calm and warm for the March on Washington. Even the D.C. Metropolitan Police, which had been bracing for a race riot, had nothing to complain about.

I remember when it was all over but the final act. As I stood some 50 feet behind the lectern, march Chairman A. Philip Randolph introduced Martin, to wild applause, as "the moral leader of our nation." And I still didn't know how Martin had pulled the speech together after our meeting.

After Martin greeted the people assembled, he began his speech, and I was shocked when these words quickly rolled out:

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check.

Martin was essentially reciting the opening suggestions I'd handed in the night before. This was strange, given the way he usually worked over the material Stanley and I provided. When he finished the promissory note analogy, he paused. And in that breach, something unexpected, historic and largely unheralded happened. Martin's favorite gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, who had performed earlier in the day, called to him from nearby: "Tell 'em about the dream, Martin, tell 'em about the dream!"

Martin clutched the speaker's lectern and seemed to reset. I watched him push the text of his prepared remarks to one side. I knew this performance had just been given over to the spirit of the moment. I leaned over and said to the person next to me, "These people out there today don't know it yet, but they're about ready to go to church."

What could possibly motivate a man standing before a crowd of hundreds of thousands, with television cameras beaming his every move and a cluster of microphones tracing his every word, to abandon the prepared text of his speech and begin riffing on a theme that he had used previously without generating much enthusiasm from listeners?

Before our eyes, he transformed himself into the superb, third-generation Baptist preacher that he was, and he spoke those words that in retrospect feel destined to ring out that day:

I have a dream . . .

In front of all those people, cameras, and microphones, Martin winged it. But then, no one I've ever met could improvise better.

The speech went on to depart drastically from the draft I'd delivered, and I'll be the first to tell you that America is the better for it. As I look back on my version, I realize that nearly any confident public speaker could have held the crowd's attention with it. But a different man could not have delivered "I Have a Dream."

Some believe, though the facts are otherwise, that Martin was such a superlative writer that he never needed others to draft material for him. I understand that belief; fate made Martin a martyr and a unique American myth - and myths stand alone. But admitting that even this unequaled writer had people helping him hardly takes anything away. People like Stanley, Mahalia and I helped him maximize his brilliance. If not, why would Mahalia interrupt a planned address? She wasn't unhappy with the material he was reading - she just wanted him to preach.

That he did. You only have to hear the recording of even a handful of the words from his speech and, for the rest of your life, when you read it you will hear his signature cadence. Can you hear it now?

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!

The crowd was rapt. Tears of joy fell everywhere. And when Martin ended with a cried refrain from a spiritual that predated the Emancipation Proclamation, the sense of history - past and future - struck me full force:

Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

***

More than 40 years later, I was invited to visit Stanford University's Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute as a candidate for an academic post. I met with the director, who knew I had just started work on a book about Martin and wanted to convince me that I should write it there. To demonstrate the wealth of the institute's research materials, he had me choose a date from the years I had worked with Martin.

I offered Aug. 28, 1963.

One of the staffers soon brought in a cardboard box with papers related to that day. Among them was a copy of the program that had been handed out at the march. At the time, no one could possibly understand the emotional impact this had on me. It was the standard program except for one corner, where it bore a handwritten note to Martin - from me.

"Dear Martin - just learned that Dr. W.E.B. Dubois died last night in Ghana. Someone should make note of this fact."

I was looking at a copy of my own program, something I'd urgently written on and passed through the crowd to Martin up on the dais. Tears welled in my eyes as I imagined its long journey from my hand to the institute's files. I felt Martin, my friend, reaching out and saying to me, "Keep our dream alive."

That is what this country does every January on Martin Luther King Day. I am hopeful that sometime soon, it will be what we do every day of the year.

Adapted from "Behind the Dream" by Clarence B. Jones and Stuart Connelly. Copyright 2011 by the authors and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited.

Clarence B. Jones, a scholar in residence at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, is a co-author, with Stuart Connelly, of the new book "Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech That Transformed a Nation," from which this essay is adapted.

18 comments:

J.Sardina said...

Martin Luther King Jr. is undoubtedly one of the greatest political forces we have ever known. While I do not have any large plans for commemorating MLK's life, I think that on this day everyone should take a few minutes to re-watch his pivotal "I Have a Dream" speech. His message not only reminds us of how far we have come towards equality, but is applicable in our endeavor to reach even more equality. I will definitely take a few minutes to find a video of his speech on Youtube and reflect upon how influential Martin Luther King Jr. is and continues to be.

CAbbey said...

To celebrate MLK day, I will go to school because we do not have off like the Milwaukee Public Schools do. Or maybe I'll just skip because I am so proud of his accomplishments...

sscheidt said...

Although this day doesn't get a lot of attention in our area (some people won't even know that it has occurred) , I think it is very important to keep in mind MLK and the contributions he made to civil rights in our country. Martin Luther King Jr. worked incredibly hard to make his dream a reality in this country, and in the end he lost his life to the heated disagreement surrounding his cause. Even if you don't agree with his beliefs, it is impossible to deny that he was an incredibly powerful orator; listen to any of his speeches and you will see that. With that said, I strongly encourage everyone to watch or read one of MLK's speeches. I recommend the iconic "I Have a Dream" speech (naturally) as well as his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize. His ability to express himself is absolutely captivating, and in watching him speak it becomes clear just how influential he was during his fight for peaceful racial equality. Martin Luther King Jr. was an incredibly important figure in America's past, and I think he deserves to be remembered as such. I, for one, will keep that in mind tomorrow.

M. Francis said...

I will celebrate MLK Day by taking a calculus exam and learning at school. Hopefully I will get a chance to hear one of the greatest speeches in United States history at some point during the day. Martin Luther King Jr. was a great speaker and a true Patriot. Unfortunately most people in the extremely diversified city of Muskego will not know that it is MLK Day until they check their mailbox... and find it empty.

nklinka said...

On Martin Luther King Day, I likely will not be doing anything too earth shattering. Because our school is so diversified, I will actually be attending school and very little emphasis will be placed upon this day. Maybe in AP GoPo we will watch some footage of MLK and discuss him for a while. If I feel really motivated, I may just watch one of his speeches other than his "I Have a Dream" speech, because a great orator should not be defined by one speech. Other than that, my day will likely not in any way commemorate MLK because as great of a figure as he is, his impact on my life has been somewhat negligible compared to African Americans and even whites who live in highly diversified communities. Plus I am busy and have exams and homework and all sorts of other things to busy myself with. Ah well. Live and ya learn.

JScott said...

Although I will most likely not hang up the MLK banners, put on my I heart MLK shirt, and go to the local MLK parade, I will stop and think about what he wanted and hoped to accomplish, and if we today have accomplished his dream. Even though it is probably imposible to erase all the racism from the world, i do believe we have made great strides twords MLK's dream. Today, African-Americans are respected in all branches of government including our black-ish president. MLK's "I have a Dream" speech is still influencial today and reminds us all that no one person is born better than any other one person. Except of course, the French. I would challenge France to prove that, but I don't feel like waiting for them to bleach their white flag.

moconnor said...

Martin Luther King Jr. is a political figure who defines the term awesomeness. His image is still remembered today because of his speeches and the way he was able to bring people together to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Unfortunately, I will not be able to celebrate MLK day like most students because apparently he is not considered a big enough deal in Muskego to take a day off in his honor. I find it disappointing that our school does not give him the respect he deserves and will most likely try to make up for it by acknowledging him for a minute during the morning announcements. Hopefully we will watch MLK's speech during GoPo and talk about his contributions to America. On top of that I will make sure to celebrate this day by reading more about his life and reflect upon it sometime during the day.

RPawlow said...

Tomorrow will be just like any other day. A calendar shouldn't limit our respect toward MLK's achievements.

rrantala said...

For MLK day i watched his famed "I have a dream speech" and remembered how much he did to change our country.

KSASS said...

In order to celebrate MLK Day I kept his greatest speech entitled "I Have a Dream" and his accomplishments in mind. Brian Williams even celebrated the day with me when he spoke about this historic day on the nightly news.

ckruesel said...

To celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. day I took part in a minuet long observation of silence during my first hour class. Even though I do not benefit from MLK’s contributions he was undoubtedly one of the best public speakers of the 20th century. His “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech is especially moving.

PAnderson said...

I watched his infamous "I Have a Dream" speech during AP GoPo. His quest for liberty for all races shouldn't just be realized on MLK day but in our everyday lives.

nspoerk said...

To celebrate MLK day, I began my day by listening to our resident African-American student, Jordin Ford, read a commerative script on this great man's life and death. My thoughts of reverence were momentarily side-tracked as I got pooped on by a Calc BC exam. Coming into my next hour, I was again reminded of his contributions as we watched footage of the defining "I Have a Dream" speech. Ironically, we then proceeded to learn about civil liberties, which are fundamentally defferent from the civil rights that MLK fought for. I contemplated this paradox, then went on to a normal day.

I guess the point is that, although we live in a community where there is only one ethnically diverse student to read a MLK tribute, we should consider his contributions a little more often. He defined not only the quest for black parity, but he symbolizes the adversarial process Mr. Bretzmann talks about. Our political system may not be perfect, but it is due to the perseverance of people like Martin Luther King Jr. that our society can change for the better.

LWundrock said...

Martin Luther King Day should be prized and respected in remembrance of a not just a great man, but a great movement. As a way to recognize the magnitude of impact that Dr. King has had on this country, I think it is important to watch his famous "I Have A Dream" speech, as it portrays the raw power of his message, and the pure, genuine compassion that he had for people of all colors. Just from watching the speech in Mr. Bretzmann's class, I was reminded of how far this nation has come, echoing that very same dream of racial togetherness, and the force that lies within the honest hopes of one person. As a way to celebrate the life of MLK, I will be the continuance of that dream, living my life with the same compassionate characteristics of which he lead his.

caseymedved said...

Sadly, "MLK" Day is not celebrated as it should be. Martin Luther King was a visionary. With out him we may still be working on the slow progress of trying to get rid of colored water fountains. Martin Luther King Jr. Day is just seen as another random holiday we see on our calenders that we do barely anything to commemerate. This astonishing man and his revolutionary ideas deserve more. Not only should African Americans celebrate this holiday, but everyone alike. The holiday represents an equality and understanding of people that we are still trying to accomplish today. Everyone should sit down and watch the "I Have a Dream" speech and Robert Kennedy's speech when he was told during a campaign rally that Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed. After doing so, everyone should strive to change themselves a little bit and try to get rid of a little prejudism in the world. Because dehumanization is like the 5th horseman of the apocalypse.

dboyce said...

I greatly appreciate what MLK did for our nation and for the civil rights movement. However, I won't be doing anything special for this day. Unfortunately, we do have school, I think we should have off because it would help more people appreciate MLK.

Hillary said...

On the moday of MLK day i celebrated it in a variety of ways. I watched a few minutes of his "I Have a Dream" speech and thought about how that speech has infulenced the rest of my life and other peoples lives. This just went to show that we have been progressing as a nation and will hopefully continue to grow.

Anne L. said...

Every year in Elementary school, on MLK DAy, we would read a passage or watch a video about all that Mr. King accomplished for the Civil Rights Movement. It never occured to me then that we weren't getting off school that day. We in fact don't need a day off school to celebrate all that Mr. King has done for this country. So this January 21, 2013, I will attend school, look forward to hearing an announcment on it before school, and discuss about him in AP Government and Politics with my learning community.